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Getting It Wrong Again

Afghanistan War Poses New Risks

There are regions of the world that, throughout history, have defied the efforts of foreign armies. In Russia, “General Winter— turned back the frostbitten armies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler; in Vietnam, a determined population and an unconventional jungle battlefield mired first France and then America in protracted conflict; and in Afghanistan, a rugged landscape and a widely diffused governing structure have stymied empires from ancient Greece to Great Britain to Soviet Russia.

And now, it seems, America is stymied as well. In “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,— RAND scholar Seth G. Jones

chronicles America’s increasingly frustrated efforts in Afghanistan, where a swift military victory in 2001 gave way to a corrupt and crumbling state that has provided resurgent militant groups with ample opportunity to reassert themselves.

A weak central government has long been a feature of Afghanistan. Relevant decision-making occurs at the local level, with disputes resolved by councils of village elders.

“In that sense, stability was largely a function, at the rural areas, of local institutions providing it,— Jones said in an interview.

In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s, Jones writes that Afghanistan fragmented into “a patchwork of competing groups,— the legitimacy of the tribal structure of rule subordinated to warlords backed by weapons rather than by the traditional sanction of local councils. It was this vacuum that allowed the Taliban, offering some basic services and a respite from factional violence, to first rise to power.

When America invaded after Sept. 11, 2001, the chief focus was on hunting militants, while the United States gave the task of ensuring the security of rural areas to the nascent government of Hamid Karzai. Jones identifies this — along with what he writes was “one of the lowest levels of troops, police and financial assistance in any stabilization effort since World War II— — as a crucial misstep.

“Probably the chief way that the U.S. misunderstood Afghanistan was trying to conceive of stabilizing the country from the center out, and that it tried to create an entirely top down central government that could establish order in rural areas,— Jones said. “Almost a Western notion of governance.—

Jones details a struggle in the Bush administration between those who sought a long-term American presence to maintain stability and those who denounced this as “nation-building.— The latter approach, which focused on a “light footprint,— won out, with disastrous consequences.

The training of Afghan security forces was contracted out to private firms such as DynCorp and Blackwater, whose focus was less on getting results than on fulfilling the basic terms of their contracts, Jones writes. Turf wars between the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the Department of Defense impeded coordination, while reticent NATO allies largely refused to provide support on the ground. The result was an Afghan police force that was “poorly equipped, corrupt and badly trained,— Jones writes.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq siphoned off resources and attention. Jones said U.S. policymakers, including those in the intelligence community, by 2002 believed the Taliban were “a spent force,— and turned their focus elsewhere.

However, militants were able to regroup in the porous, scantly policed border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, aided by an agreement that gave Pakistan the lion’s share of responsibility for hunting militants. Revelations of possible collusion between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, with Jones quoting U.S. government officials who speculate that Pakistan may have provided the Taliban with intelligence, are particularly alarming.

Corruption is now endemic to Afghanistan, Jones writes, with judges, police officers and government officials routinely extracting bribes. He notes how government officials would publicly condemn the country’s vast opium trade but would protect the Taliban’s efforts to abet the drug trade in exchange for kickbacks. Afghans have little trust in their government’s capacity to guarantee law and order.

In describing what went wrong, Jones often draws on the analogy of supply and demand. Afghanistan contained a supply of locals disillusioned by the government’s inability to provide basic services such as security and clean water, while militant groups had a demand for recruits. The Taliban, Jones writes, were able in some cases to step in and provide “a shadow government, complete with an administrative structure and courts.—

Jones writes that, “Afghan wars have typically been won — and lost — in rural areas, not the cities.— He said the central government has a role to play in securing the urban areas that are its traditional sphere of influence and in mediating larger local conflicts, but he pointed to local development as the key to the success for the recent influx of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“There has been a notable focus on protecting the Afghan population, and that means partly security but it also means development assistance,— he said. “That means building schools, roads, clinics at a local level.—

Jones also spoke of reaching out to local tribes and clans who dislike the Taliban, and of gaining their support by building local institutions. He said this would further marginalize the Taliban, which have already largely fallen out of favor, as people will no longer have any reason to turn to repressive rulers to attain a measure of stability.

Jones’ account is thorough and well-sourced, and he navigates Afghanistan’s wide array of ethnic groups, local rulers and ideologues with what appears to be relative ease. His conversations with U.S. diplomats, soldiers and Afghans demonstrate a deep commitment to understanding the complexity of the picture.

The United States, Jones contends, is not constructing a new nation. Its foremost task is to provide the basic conditions for a localized system of government that has ruled Afghanistan for millenniums.

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